Listen to Austin 360 Radio

In a galaxy not far away, 'Star Wars: The Old Republic' online game was born

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

The droids, sure. The Force? Most certainly. Boba Fett's helmet, Princess Leia's metal bikini, lightsabers? Absolutely.

There are lots of things that made the "Star Wars" series cool, but not much is said about what really made it mindblowing: its sense of nearly infinite scale.

It happened a long time ago (How long? A while.) in a galaxy far, far away (How far? REALLY far), hyperspacing between planets like it was no big thing. Do you like Chewbacca? There's a whole planet of those Wookiees and it even has a name: Kashyyyk . Darth Vader cruelly obliterates Alderaan and in mere seconds, billions of fictional people are done away with for the sake of a plot point.

For "Star Wars" fans it will be hard not to feel that sense-of-scale brain tickle with "Star Wars: The Old Republic," an Austin-developed online game that goes live Tuesday.

Developed by hundreds of writers, digital artists, programmers, an army of IT and support staff and others, the massively multiplayer game for Windows PCs has been in development since 2006. Local developers say it's the largest video game made in Austin, both in terms of staff and budget.

BioWare Austin, the Electronic Arts-owned studio behind the game, won't release official employee or budget numbers, but analysts and game journalists have estimated it could cost anywhere from $80 million to north of $200 million to develop when marketing and ongoing costs are factored in. EA has said in past interviews that "The Old Republic" is the most expensive game the nearly 30-year-old company has ever made.

If all goes well, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of players, will gather online to rattle their lightsabers, test the light and dark sides of The Force and make their way through a practically endless amount of digital storytelling.

It's got scale, is all we're saying.

The galaxy builders

In a large Northwest Austin office building near the Domain shopping center, you might see stormtroopers and Darth Vader walking around the BioWare offices; this is typical. The walls are decorated with massive artwork both familiar (the Death Star) and not-yet-iconic (framed concept art from the new game). A lot of "Star Wars" toys, props and memorabilia adorn desks and shelves.

Game production increased so quickly this year that about 15,000 square feet of additional office space had to be set up to accommodate new staffers. There's an area for writers cranking out dialogue and storylines for game updates and future expansions, another for artists creating characters and environments and a separate soundproofed room just to create sound effects. A sealed strategy command room is where teams will meet to discuss any problems during launch. There's a live video link to a customer support team in Ireland and a TV set to CNN: If any events affect whether people are playing (say a blizzard in the Northeast keeps people staying home and playing), the team wants to know about it. The studio will be tracking huge amounts of data about the way people are playing the game, trouble spots that need fixing and anything that could affect the game's servers (housed in multiple locations outside Austin).

The studio's creative heads say they're constantly being asked about the pressure of such a massive project. The most successful game of this kind, "World of Warcraft" from competitor Activision Blizzard Inc., has attracted up to 12 million players and has made billions of dollars. There's been speculation as to whether "Old Republic" will be able to compete with "Warcraft" where other MMOs have failed. One of them was "Tabula Rasa," an ambitious space game released in late 2007 by NCSoft. That Austin-developed game lasted just over a year before it was shuttered.

James Olen, creative director for "Old Republic," said his even keel comes from experience. He says BioWare has previously bet the company on big titles like "Mass Effect" and "Knights of the Old Republic," a 2003 Xbox role-playing game that "Star Wars: The Old Republic" is partly based upon.

"I'm immune to that pressure now because I've been through it so many times," Olen said.

Rich Vogel, the co-studio director for BioWare Austin, said that about a year has been spent polishing the game . That included an evaluation from an outside company, focus groups and a large beta test that attracted 750,000 gamers over the past few months.

"We know we have something that grabs people, that resonates well with players," Vogel said. "We've been able to hone the project to where we want it to be."

No Darth, but lots of Sith

Much of the game's success will depend on what casual "Star Wars" fans — not just those who have an intuitive grasp of Yoda-speak — think of a game that costs $60, plus $15 a month to play and which has no real ending.

Unlike a previous attempt at a "Star Wars" MMO game, "Star Wars: Galaxies," this one sidesteps the timeline of the George Lucas movies. "Star Wars: The Old Republic" is set thousands of years before the films and a few hundred years after "Knights of the Old Republic."

Though many of the planets, races and weaponry (lots of lightsabers!) will be familiar to players, you won't see Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker or, blessedly, Jar-Jar Binks. That decision allowed the studio to sidestep a great deal of licensing approvals and storyline vetting from LucasArts."

Perhaps the biggest thing that will set "Old Republic" apart from other MMOs, aside from the "Star Wars" setting, is a huge amount of recorded dialogue that plays through the game: 280,000 lines of audio, more than in any video game yet. Vogel likens it to the difference between the era of silent movies and the invention of talkies.

The voice-overs were cast and recorded in California by LucasArts and come to about 1,600 hours of audio for the game so far.

A new hope

Mike Barrick, an Abingdon, Md.-based contributor to the "Star Wars" fan news website theforce.net, said the game is riding a large wave of pre-release hype built up over several years, but that it's not unusual. "\u2009'Star Wars' is just known for hype. It's hard for anything 'Star Wars' to live up to the hype at this point."

But he thinks the game has a good chance to succeed based on continued interest in "Star Wars" and some impressive cinematic trailers BioWare has released. "BioWare has done a good job. They'll grab your attention regardless of whether you're an MMO player or not," Barrick said. Buzz for the game in the "Star Wars" community, he said, is "extremely positive."

Among the gaming press, there seems to be renewed interest, says Morgan Webb, an anchor on the G4 TV show "X-Player." "We've been talking about it a long time," Webb said. "There was a little bit of press fatigue."

Since the beta test, however, she says buzz has been very good.

"I think it's going to be a huge launch," Webb said, "BioWare definitely has a good track record."

Two players who participated in the beta test of the game said they enjoyed it and plan to play the game when it's released.

Cate Stuart-Hodges, a records manager for an Atlanta law firm, said she tried playing as several different characters and enjoyed the different storylines over about six hours of play.

She was surprised to find so many other women playing. "We have an underrated voice in the gaming community, and I'm interested to see how many of us will be playing," she said.

Jordan Brown, a community manager at Austin's County Line on the Lake, played the beta for about 15 hours. "The game exceeded my expectations," he said. "I don't think my excitement for this game could be any higher." He said his only complaints were small bugs and navigation issues that could easily be fixed.

Shadow of 'WoW'

The game will be inevitably be compared to "World of Warcraft," but BioWare says that its parent company is not expecting "WoW" numbers and that the game will be considered successful with as few as a half million players, a modest number for such a large-scale game with such a recognizable pop culture tie-in.

The studio is already looking ahead two or three years to expansion packs to the game and future content that'll be added .

"I'm not saying we have a 'WoW' killer, but we have something that can be very competitive out there," Vogel said. "People are going to realize what a different experience it is."

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672

‘Star Wars: The Old Republic'